The consumer drone industry is increasingly positioning itself as a maker of flying cameras, not autonomous robots. The goal is a sort of self-aware GoPro that you will allow anyone to be their own aerial cinematographer. Today a startup called Lily is trying to move a step closer to that future with a drone that you can literally just toss into the air and then ignore, leaving it to pilot itself.
It senses when you jump and goes into slow-mo mode
The Lily was created by Antoine Balaresque and Henry Bradlow, who met while studying computer science and working at the UC Berkeley Robotics Laboratory. To follow its subject, it relies on a small GPS tracker that the user carries in their pocket or wears on their wrist, but the drone also incorporates computer vision technology that can recognize its owner and use algorithms to more precisely frame them within a scene. The tracking device also records audio that syncs with your video, something no other drone offers, as the rotors would typically drown out sound.
"Cameras right now are limited by the skill of the human operator. Most of the time that means non-professionals getting less than ideal shots," says Bradlow. "With a flying camera, you can get amazing shots and angles regardless of who is using it." For example, sensor data from the tracker can automatically trigger a slow mode or burst mode when it senses you going off a jump. It shoots in 1080p at 60 frames per second and captures 12 megapixel stills.
Sitting beside you waiting for that perfect wave
In terms of hardware, the Lily was built to mimic the attributes of an action cam, with a polycarbonate hull that can withstand a hard crash. For extra protection, the camera is internal, not mounted on an exterior gimbal. It’s rated as waterproof to IP67, putting it on par with the recent Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. The pitch here is that you can drop it off the side of your kayak or let it float next to your surfboard while you wait for the moment to have it launch, follow, and film you. The construction has some trade-offs. To keep the waterproof ability and extend flight time to over 20 minutes, for example, the creators decided to forgo a battery you can swap in and out, so you have to charge the entire unit.
The device goes on sale today for pre-order at $499, a major discount from the $999 retail price that the company is planning when the Lily goes on sale. The duo has raised venture funding from Upside Partnership, SV Angel, and High Line Venture Partners. But they are following the tried and true model of crowdfunding the first run of a new hardware offering, hoping to engage a dedicated fan base, sharpen the product market fit, and of course get a nice helping of interest-free working capital.
The self-stabilization is impressive
The Lily is extremely ambitious. While many consumer drones now offer the ability to take off and land with the push of a button, and promise that they can return home to you with just a tap, the Lily takes all those capabilities one step further. I went out to a park in New York City with the founders to see it in action. You chuck the Lily up in the air, and it flips and tumbles for a second, before suddenly righting itself and hovering in place. It’s an impressive feat of midair stabilization. You can see fun near-disaster highlights below.
The founders all showed me a quick demo of the Lily coming in for a landing in the palm of your hand, relying on computer vision and a downward facing camera. This would let the Lily finish a flight without having to find a flat surface. It seemed very cool, and also very risky, given how close your hands are to the rotors.
All that makes the Lily stand out as a vision for the simplest possible implementation of a drone. It’s a lot like the Airdog and Hexo+ units we saw at CES. Once it’s launched, all flight is based on filming you. Using an app or handheld unit, it's possible to shift from a follow mode to a pan to a 360-degree selfie.
Right now there is no sense and avoid
But both of the drones we saw at CES still require a stable surface for takeoff, something that could be hard to find when you’re scaling a sheer rock face or tubing through some white water. While this is exciting, the Lily doesn’t yet have any capabilities for sense and avoid, meaning it won’t dodge passing trees, ski lifts, or fellow surfers. For now you will need to use it in a fairly wide open space.
The founders believe that removing most of the manual controls provides a simplicity that will make the Lily accessible to both gadget nerds and dabblers. "We set out to build a flying camera from scratch, one anyone could use," says Balaresque. The feature set on the Lily will definitely appeal to the action sports crowd, although I have a hard time imagining a senior citizen feeling comfortable trying to catch a drone.